A few weeks ago, President Bush encouraged Americans to conserve fuel by cutting back on non-essential driving. Unlike some, I think it’s actually helpful to use the bully pulpit this way. I just don’t think it’s terribly meaningful: People respond far more to prices than to jawboning. And as Brookings Institution scholars Robert Puentes and Bruce Katz point out, the sprawling layout of American cities makes an awful lot of our driving "essential," for all practical purposes:

[W]hat the President doesn’t get when he asks Americans to curtail their "non-essential travel" is that a half-century of government policies have fueled and subsidized the growth of sprawling, haphazard metropolitan communities and have dramatically increased the amount of "essential travel" required for people to live their daily lives. Driving may not be the best option, but it is often the only option for Americans to get around.

Americans venture out in their cars to find housing they can afford because housing opportunities closer-in are thwarted, while new developments on the suburban fringe are subsidized. Taking transit, biking, or walking to the corner market or to jobs located off the highway exit is neither safe nor feasible because of policies that segregate uses and cater to the car rather than the pedestrian. Federal and state policies make highways easy to build and relegate transit and other alternatives to second-class status.

These policies come with a huge hidden price tag for families, in the form of higher local taxes (to pay for needed infrastructure) and the ever-rising costs of buying, driving and maintaining cars.

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Neil Pierce has similar thoughts in today’s Seattle Times.